Everyone, it seems, is in favor of open government until they get elected to public office. Then it’s a different story.
And the longer they’ve been in office, the less inclined they are to be open.
The New Bedford City Council as a group includes several councilors who have been on that body for well over 10 years. And they are especially not very open to talking about what they’re up to when the cable-access cameras are off.
Some councilors, in fact, rarely engage with the media at all beyond the confines of social media pages they control or with local media that they know will be friendly. Mayor Jon Mitchell is not much different, although I will say he takes my own questions more often than veteran councilors like Linda Morad or Brian Gomes do. Which in those councilors’ cases is almost never.
But even for the secretive ways of the New Bedford City Council, their recent behavior over the authorization to spend some of the $64.7 million in federal pandemic relief money has taken their penchant for doing things behind closed doors to a whole new level.
First off, the council is months behind many other Massachusetts communities in accepting the American Rescue Plan Act funds. The mayor’s request for the money lay dormant in the Finance Committee for four months last year when Morad chaired the committee.
Another part of the problem may be the curious advice they have received from their own longtime counsel, attorney David Gerwatowski.
Gerwatowski, a former city councilor himself and long a familiar figure inside New Bedford political circles, has informed the council in stark terms that their job is not to accept the ARPA monies but just to authorize where they can be spent. The mayor has said publicly that he disagrees with that opinion, which is little wonder since other communities have voted to accept the funds.
Since some councilors had seemed inclined to accept the money, it almost seems like Gerwatowksi has sided with one part of the council over the other. That part of the council is determined to not only have a say in how the funds are spent, but final decision-making authority on how they are spent.
But I digress.
Even more worrisome than the council’s determination to exert more control over the funds than they are probably entitled to, is the secretive process by which the council is trying to exercise that control.
Whether you agree or disagree with Mayor Mitchell’s plans for the money — and a very public debate has been taking place in recent weeks over whether the mayor has recommended too much money for “arts, culture, hospitality and tourism” over other things — at least the mayor’s recommendations have been made public.
But on Feb. 28, the council’s Finance Committee was all set to vote on a motion that would have given the body control over where the monies would be spent without ever publicly stating, never mind publicly debating, the specific amounts of money and the areas in which the council intended to spend it.
Here’s what happened:
Longtime Councilor Morad devised a plan in which the other 10 councilors would give her the amounts they recommended in the mayor’s various categories and even add categories of their own if they wanted. Morad, on her own, would then average those recommendations on a spreadsheet.
The plan was obviously for one of the councilors to then recommend that the council accept the ARPA funds based on the average of the councilors’ recommendations, which freshman Councilor Ryan Pereira promptly did. It doesn’t take long for newly elected officials to learn the shadowy ways that things often get done in New Bedford.
This was all a neat trick. Because it would allow councilors who are in the minority positions to pull down, or shoot up, the average spending amounts by either recommending little to a category, or giving it far more money than the majority of councilors wanted to do.
In fact, it would eliminate the ability of the majority of the councilors to settle on amounts they felt was the best compromise, and give the councilor’s with the fringe positions the power to pull down or bump up, the average amounts in their own directions.
It’s funny. It all sounded fair on the surface but it was anything but that.
And the most outrageous part of the whole scheme was that neither Morad, Finance Committee Chair Brad Markey nor Pereira ever made any effort to make those average amounts public.
My guess is that all this may have been a violation of the Massachusetts Open Meeting Law. The law says “all meetings of a public body shall be open to the public” and “A member of the public body may email other public body members on matters within jurisdiction of a public body so long as the email does not reach a quorum of the public body.”
At least once Morad appears to have emailed all the members of the council. Through a public records request, The New Bedford Light obtained Morad’s Feb. 18 email addressed to “email@example.com” asking all 11 councilors to forward her their recommendations for ARPA spending in the mayor’s categories. The Finance Committee had approved her request to do this, and after they received her email, the councilors responded to Morad individually.
Sure, the motion made by Councilor Pereira referred to an attached “Exhibit A” that contained the averages of the councilors. But no one ever outlined at a public meeting what was in Exhibit A, and no councilor had asked the numbers to be made public until the last minute.
I had asked Council President Ian Abreu to make those averages public, and to make the amounts recommended by the individual councilors’ known. Certainly the voters have a right to know how much money councilors were recommending to spend in which areas of this important federal pandemic relief money.
At the last minute before the vote, Abreu met me halfway. He asked Clerk of Committees Denis Lawrence Jr. at the televised Zoom meeting of the council to read out loud the averages publicly, which Lawrence did. But Abreu did not ask that Lawrence read what the individual councilors were asking for.
So the public had no way of knowing where their councilor wanted to spend money and where they did not.
The information was going to eventually come out anyway because the previous week I had filed a written request to Morad and Markey under the Massachusetts public records law asking that the averages, the individual councilors’ request, and all communications of the councilors with Councilor Morad be made public.
After my request, Councilor Morad relayed that information to City Clerk Dennis Farias who provided me with the information this past Wednesday.
Suggested allocation of ARPA funds
It was a gold mine of what was going on behind closed doors, providing very specific information of where individual councilors wanted the money to go, and perhaps even more importantly, where they did not want it to go.
For instance, councilors Gomes and Maria Giesta didn’t want to give nearly the amount of money that Mayor Mitchell says is necessary to move the city’s arts and tourism industries forward. The mayor had initially recommended $18 million, and then under pressure from the council said he would settle for $15 million. Gomes and Giesta only wanted to give $6 million and $7 million. Their numbers helped pull that number down to $11.9 million.
Also interesting, apparently on her own, Morad had reduced all the Mitchell administration’s recommendations by 20%, reasoning that since Bristol County will be providing $16.7 million in ARPA funds to the city, or about 20% of the total funds, she would subtract that amount from the administration’s recommendations. But a spokesman for the mayor said that Mitchell had never approved that reduction, even though Clerk of Committees Denis Lawrence Jr. read Morad’s numbers, instead of the mayor’s, as the administration’s recommendation at the Feb. 28 council Finance Committee meeting.
It was a bold move by Morad given that attorney Gerwatowski had already informed the City Council that the county intends to have a say in how its money is spent in New Bedford.
There were all kinds of nuggets about what the individual councilor’s were up to in the public records information.
For instance, there had been an effort by some community groups to devote a greater portion of the ARPA monies to affordable housing than the mayor had recommended.
An examination of Morad’s spreadsheet, obtained by The Light, shows what was never discussed on the council floor. Councilor Shane Burgo was the only councilor who took to heart the recommendations of PACE and United Interfaith Action to make housing the highest priority, given how greatly the pandemic has affected housing costs in the city.
Burgo recommended the city devote $22 million of the federal windfall to housing and another $22 million for arts and tourism. It’s a good thing he did because those items would have cratered in Morad’s averages without him.
Many councilors proposed giving even less to the category that included housing than the $13 million originally proposed by Mayor Mitchell for a combined category he called “neighborhood stabilization and housing.” The councilors who wanted to give the least to affordable housing were Morad and Giesta, who still came in at $9 million. Councilor Pereira, who has talked a lot about getting blighted properties back on the tax rolls, only wanted to give a little more at $9.5 million.
One of the most interesting facts about the council suggestions was that the majority of councilors wanted to add in a whole category of spending, public safety, not proposed by Mitchell.
The mayor did originally recommend a healthy $13 million for a combined category called “health, safety and wellbeing.” After discussions with some councilors, he added $3.9 million more, bringing the category to $16.9 million, according to Morad’s numbers. But seven councilors wanted to add in even millions beyond that to an additional category called “public safety” alone.
Brian Gomes wanted to add in some $11 million to that category, and councilors Scott Lima, Giesta and Morad wanted to add in an additional $4 million. The actions of the councilors, in effect, gave public safety two categories in which to draw funds.
Elise Rapoza, the mayor’s ARPA administrator, had cautioned the council that many public safety categories would not be eligible for the pandemic relief funds because the funds must be related to the pandemic — and New Bedford’s crime went down during the pandemic. Gerwatowski, however, rebutted her by saying the funds don’t have to be spent for a long time and there might be unforeseen public safety effects. For example, he theorized that the effects of wearing masks on children could later lead to things like an escalation of juvenile crime.
Not all the councilors wanted to play the averages game. Councilor Naomi Carney, who has suggested that as much as $60 million of the $64 million should be used for wastewater and stormwater costs (an amount the mayor has said won’t reduce water and sewer bills in the long run) did not submit any suggestions, and Morad reportedly did not include Carney in the averages.
All in all, these efforts to grab control of so much ARPA money — without anyone knowing how much they wanted to go where — represent a new low for the New Bedford City Council.
Perhaps the best proof of how dysfunctional the council is that its leaders are now maintaining that they didn’t even properly approve the mayor’s plan at the Feb. 28 meeting. Council President Abreu said that Gerwatowski, among others, said the motion was not worded so that it would go back to the full council for final approval.
Evidently there is going to be a political battle about that from the mayor who apparently feels the council has dragged its feet long enough on approving the money.
Michael Lawrence, the spokesman for the mayor’s office, said the Finance Committee has now approved the money and of course it is up to the full council to finally approve. He asked where else would it go after a Finance Committee vote.
“The Finance Committee voted 6-4 to approve the mayor’s allocation plan,” he said.
Email Jack Spillane at firstname.lastname@example.org.